The Melanesian collections, numbering over 38,000 ethnographic objects, represent one of the world’s finest collections of Pacific material culture ever assembled. Originating mostly during the first two decades of the 20th century, most of lowland and coastal New Guinea as well as the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago (New Britain, New Ireland, and the Admiralty Islands), the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia are represented. The Joseph N. Field South Pacific Expedition 1909-1913, amassing over 15,000 objects from the region, was the most extensive expedition of its kind; the only ethnological expedition to reach all of the Melanesian colonies, and led by A. B. Lewis, who would experience, photograph, and collect more than any other anthropologist in the region before World War I. The remainder of the collection is derived from dealers, traders, ship captains, travelers, and anthropologists. Since A.B. Lewis’ historic expedition the Museum has continued to grow its Melanesian holdings another 8,500 objects. Among these contributions were 3,575 items received from A.W.F. Fuller, 464 items from the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea received from James B. Watson of the University of Washington in 1956, over 100 items from New Ireland collected by Philip H. Lewis, Curator of Primitive Art between 1957 and 1992, and 629 items received in 2000 from the Eastern Papua New Guinea Highlands collected by Vida Chenoweth.
Robert L. Welsch, Adjunct Curator of Anthropology, and Regenstein Curator John Edward Terrell, together with Wilfred Oltomo from the Papua New Guinea National Museum returned to the Sepik coast of northern New Guinea in the footsteps of A.B. Lewis between March 1993 and February 1994. They made collections of contemporary material culture of over 2,000 items (divided between Chicago and the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby) in almost all of the nearly 100 villages along the northern coast of New Guinea that they visited. During their repeated trips to this coast since 1990 to learn how exchange relationships between villages link families and local communities into larger human associations (or “regional systems”), Welsch and Terrell have been able to gather a great deal of information about the raw materials, manufacture, use, cultural meaning, and local socioeconomic significance of this region’s material culture – as witnessed both by the Field Museum’s ethnographic collections and also by the local crafts still being practiced in these many small communities.
Image above: Mask in the shape of a long house (daimo) collected by A. B. Lewis in 1912 from the Kerewa People of Goaribari Island, Gulf of Papua, Papua New Guinea. Catalog Number 1113.142720. © The Field Museum, A114408_02d, Photographer John Weinstein.
Image above and collection thumbnail: Mask of wood collected by Dr. Vida Chenoweth between 1959 and 1975. Catalog Number 4095.285012. © The Field Museum, A113933c, Photographer John Weinstein.